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The Key to Successful Cross-functional Collaboration

The Key to Successful Cross-functional CollaborationQuick: what’s the biggest challenge in cross-functional collaboration?  Bing!  Yes, “building trusting, open relationships” is correct!  Does that sound too Oprah-esque?  Let’s think about it for a minute.  How do you build trusting, open relationships in your cross-functional team, and why does it matter?

Let’s start with why it matters.  How successful will your collaboration be if each group is holding their cards tight to their chest, focused solely on “winning” what their group needs?  Heck, do you even know what other groups need?  If not, what are your chances of working together successfully? 

Where do we stand now? 
Have your groups worked together successfully in the past, or is there a history of bad blood?  If people are still throwing elbows at each other, that’s a problem.  Here’s an example I was involved in:

The IT, Licensing, and Product teams needed to collaborate to sell online product subscriptions. Collaboration to date had gone badly; the project was far behind and the groups were antagonistic toward each other.   

Trust needed to be rebuilt before success was possible.  I facilitated a steering committee of Program Managers from each group.  We started out by putting all our cards on the table.  Each person explained their group’s needs, constraints, and view of the situation. 

Once we had the full picture, the root cause became clear.  Each group had fundamentally different success metrics and priorities; as a result, they acted at cross-purposes, which undermined the overall effort.  What had been seen as incompetence and arrogance made complete sense when seen in context.  Now unified, the steering committee was hopping with ideas to improve the situation. 

If you have a charged situation with emotions to defuse, I highly recommend two books from the Harvard Negotiation Project.  The first is called “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In“, by Fisher & Uri, and the second is called “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most“, by Stone, Patton & Heen.

Who Owns What?
Everyone on a cross-functional team brings an important perspective to the table.  When clear owners are defined, the variety of perspectives informs decision-making.  When owners aren’t well-defined, it quickly becomes a situation of “too many cooks in the kitchen”. 

Decisions shouldn’t be made by consensus: there should be one owner with many advisors.  Be clear on who owns which decisions.  For example, Product Management typically owns the requirements.  Similarly, Engineering should own implementation decisions.  Occasionally there may be escalations, but in general, each member needs to trust the decision-maker’s expertise enough to relinquish power.

I hesitated when writing the previous paragraph because it seems so obvious: and yet here’s where the trusting and open relationships come into play again. 

If Product Management isn’t confident Engineering will deliver on time, the PM may try to take over some implementation decisions.  To defend against this, Engineering may avoid sharing information.  The PM is now in the dark: his confidence drops further, and his tendency to intervene increases.

Similarly, if Engineering thinks they can chart a better product direction than Product Management, they may try to take over requirements decisions.  Instead of fighting for dominance, a PM in that situation may present the requirements as final, rather than a draft for discussion.

I’m not saying each group shouldn’t weigh in.  Engineering has a very important perspective that should be factored into requirements, and Product Management has real needs that must be met in implementation.  That said, ownership should stay where it belongs unless there’s real danger of failure, in which case escalation is appropriate.

Do you have any successes or war stories to share?  Let’s hear them!

Would you like help addressing situations like this to deliver projects more effectively?  If so, let’s talk.

Best Wishes,

Mia Whitfield, M.M.Whitfield Consulting

p.s. Tune in tomorrow, when we’ll be talking about Enabling Company Success with Checkpoint Reviews.

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About the Author

Mia Whitfield is the Principal and founder of M.M.Whitfield Consulting, a firm that helps operations and development teams from Silicon Valley software companies deliver projects more effectively. Her collaborative approach brings out the best in client teams. Mia has been leading teams to deliver successfully for over 15 years. Prior to M.M.Whitfield Consulting, Mia served as a Solutions Director at Talus, and in senior project management roles at Symantec, Intuit, and Quote.com. Mia has been on both the front lines, leading teams to bring high quality products to market on-time, and in the back-office, addressing thorny internal process issues standing in the way of success. Mia has both a business and technical background. She holds a BA in Computer and Information Sciences with Honors from the University of California, and worked professionally as a software engineer before moving into project management. Mia's contact information is available on her firm's website, www.mmwhitfield.com
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